Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jeffery M. Dorwart

Forts and Fortifications

[caption id="attachment_14513" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of re-enactors walking out of a walled fort. Onlookers are sitting on  the wall and standing in the background. Fort Mifflin, shown here during a public-history event in 2014, and similar forts on the Delaware River were once a critical component in the defense of Philadelphia. Today, the fort's long history is a foundation for educational programming and events that support restoration and maintenance. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.)[/caption]

Constructed from the seventeenth through the mid-twentieth century, defensive fortifications along the lower Delaware River and bay guarded the region during times of international and sectional upheaval. As important structures with such long histories, forts help to explain the political, economic, and social history of the Greater Philadelphia region.

The earliest fortifications in the lower Delaware region resulted from the intense economic colonial rivalries and wars of the early seventeenth century, as Dutch, Swedish, and English Protestant capitalist states battled Spanish, Portuguese, and French Catholic kingdoms for control of the North American and West Indian trade and settlement. Their rivalry led to construction of Fort Nassau, built in 1626 by the Dutch West India Company on the east bank of the Delaware (the future site of Gloucester City, New Jersey), and Fort Christina, built in 1638 by the New Sweden Company at the confluence of the Christina River and Brandywine Creek (the future site of Wilmington, Delaware). Both fortifications served as centers for fur trading, and Fort Christina also developed as an agricultural settlement. The New Sweden Company dispatched more than a dozen expeditions over the next decade bringing Swedes, Finns, Dutch, and German settlers to the Delaware, then known as the South River. When Lieutenant Colonel Johan Bjornson Printz (1592-1663), a veteran of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), became governor of New Sweden in 1643 he further fortified the colony with Fort Nya Elfsborg (Elsinboro, Salem County, New Jersey) and Fort New Gothenburg (Tinicum Island, Pennsylvania) upriver on the west bank a mile south of Fort Nassau. 

[caption id="attachment_14508" align="alignright" width="194"]A color painting of a man wearing black clothing with a white undershirt. The man has long hair and is looking off to the right side of the image. Johan Printz, the third governor of New Sweden, oversaw the construction of Fort Nya Elfsborg and Fort New Gothenburg before resigning from his position in 1653. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Dutch West India Company naturally responded to New Sweden’s threat to New Netherland’s commercial monopoly on the South River by strengthening Fort Nassau, building a number of small, fortified trading posts across the river, and erecting Fort Casimir where the river met the Delaware Bay (later the site of New Castle, Delaware). The new fort stood well below the Swedish forts and promised to stop Swedish ships entering the bay and river. New Sweden soon seized Fort Casimir, but had neither the resources nor manpower to construct and hold such a fort as aggressive New Netherland Director-General Peter Stuyvesant (1612-72) sent a thousand-man expedition up the Delaware in 1655 to retake the defensive works and bring an end to New Sweden.

Britain Prevails Over the Dutch

The regained Dutch influence on the Delaware River was short-lived. In 1664, after the Dutch surrendered New Netherland to the British, they quietly abandoned their forts on the Delaware. Without major threats to control over the region and naval supremacy in the bay and nearby Atlantic coast, the British decided not to garrison fortifications on the Delaware. Spending money on forts or defense also did not interest the Quaker provincial government of Pennsylvania, created by land grant to William Penn in 1681. By the mid-eighteenth century, though, the need for fortifications in the Delaware Valley increased as Britain became locked in a century of colonial warfare with France and Spain.

Greater defenses became an issue by the 1740s as French soldiers and their Native American allies came south from Canada into western and central Pennsylvania to block English westward settlement, while French and Spanish naval forces—particularly privateers from the West Indies—came up the coast and plundered several Delaware Bay and river settlements.  Local residents constructed a fortified redoubt in 1748 near Wilmington, but the Quaker assembly in Philadelphia refused to raise money for the city’s fortification. When the French and Spanish threatened Philadelphia’s trade and business, more-militant Quaker merchants joined with a non-Quaker political faction that included Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) to fund defensive measures. During King George’s War (1740-48), Franklin used the sale of lottery tickets to fund the construction in 1747-48 of the Grand (Association) Battery, a great twenty-seven-gun stone wall along the south Philadelphia (Southwark) riverfront, and a smaller Society Hill Battery just upriver. Fortifying the lower Delaware and Philadelphia became more urgent during the French and Indian War, 1754-63, particularly after the British were driven from Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania and moved eastward toward Philadelphia. In response, Franklin oversaw construction of a number of fortifications in the Lehigh Valley, where he personally directed the building of Fort Allen (Weissport, Carbon County) in 1755.

[caption id="attachment_14515" align="alignright" width="203"]A color photograph of a hand drawn map of an fort on an island. Fort Mifflin on Mud Island, as drawn in this 1788 map, was destroyed by British bombardment in the fall of 1777. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The British government, overtaxed by continual warfare against the French in Europe, the Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean, and North America, expected the Pennsylvania Assembly to bear the burden of arming the Delaware Valley, particularly fortifying the Delaware River approaches to Philadelphia. To this end the British army dispatched military engineer Captain John Montresor (1736-99) to fortify Mud Island (also called Fort Island) on the Delaware riverfront near the mouth of the Schuylkill River. Montresor designed a small stone fort and began construction of a southern and eastern wall of the Mud Fort (later Fort Mifflin). Worsening relations between England and her North American colonies interrupted construction until 1775, as the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and increasingly protested British taxation and trade policies.

1776: Need for Forts Gains Urgency

Months of debate over whether Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, or the Continental Congress, should select sites and pay for defensive works along the river reached a critical stage after the American Declaration of Independence. On July 5, 1776, the Continental Congress purchased a site for a fort in Billingsport (Paulsboro), New Jersey. General George Washington (1732-99) asked Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746-1817), a highly skilled French-trained Polish/Lithuanian military engineer to design the fort, and the Continental Congress hired French military engineer Philippe DuCoudray (1738-77) to build it as an anchor for a chain of frames of large iron-tipped logs known as cheveaux-de-frise to be spread across the river channels to prevent British warships coming upriver to attack Philadelphia. Congress also authorized construction of Fort Mercer on a high bluff known as Red Bank, Gloucester County, New Jersey.   

The British attack on Philadelphia in late summer and fall of 1777 forced completion and garrisoning of the three Delaware River forts. Fort Billings, defended by local militia, was the first to fall to the British Army, then British naval vessels breached the chevaux-de-frise and slowly moved upriver toward the Mud Island (Fort Mifflin) and Red Bank (Fort Mercer) fortifications.  British naval bombardment of Fort Island, reportedly the heaviest cannon fire of the Revolutionary War, reduced the Mud Fort (Fort Mifflin) to rubble. Forts Mercer and Mifflin were abandoned on November 15, and the British Army occupied Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_14517" align="alignright" width="575"]A color image of a black and white map showing forts and the trails of ships through the Delaware River near Philadelphia. The attack on Fort Mifflin, Fort Mercer, and Fort Billings by the British military in the fall of 1777 was chronicled on this inset of a map by English cartographer William Faden. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Revolutionary War marked the last time that forts in the Philadelphia region defended against an enemy force. Nevertheless, fortifications became important while Philadelphia served from 1790 until 1800 as the national capital. President Washington and his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), pressed for rebuilding Fort Mifflin and constructing river defenses, particularly with the growing threat of French and British naval incursions in the Delaware during the wars of the French Revolution. The federal government hired civil engineer Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to redesign Fort Mifflin and military engineer Anne-Louis de Tousard (1749-1817) to build the bastion. Tousard used government funds to buy material from Philadelphia merchants and hire local German, Irish, and English carpenters and bricklayers. African American slaves, many owned by Tousard, supplied the necessary labor. The fort was named Fort Mifflin in 1795 after Washington’s wartime adjutant general, Thomas Mifflin (1744-1800) of Philadelphia.  

The Influence of Naval Arms

Work ceased on Fort Mifflin when the national capital left Philadelphia in 1800 for the Potomac River. Some construction resumed during the War of 1812, but Jeffersonian Republicans preferred to spend money on several temporary batteries of twenty-four-pounder cannon on islands in the Delaware River and use small gunboats to protect the city. Moreover, it seemed that the region should be defended with a fort farther downriver because Fort Mifflin stood too close to Philadelphia to provide adequate defense against increasingly long-range naval armament. The U.S. government began to look at sites near New Castle, Delaware, and Pea Patch Island, a large island in the middle of the Delaware River channel where the river met the bay.  Work began on a Pea Patch Island fort soon after the War of 1812.  Fire destroyed the partially built fort in 1831, but construction resumed in 1833 on a large stone fortification called Fort Delaware.

[caption id="attachment_14516" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white aerial photograph of a building in the middle of an island. Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island was one part of the "defensive triangle" to protect the manufacturing centers along the Delaware River. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Defense of the region became necessary once again with the advent of the Civil War. After the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor in 1861, the U.S. and Pennsylvania governments demanded the arming of Fort Delaware. They worried that a nearby secessionist movement in the state of Delaware and southern counties of New Jersey threatened the security of the cities of Philadelphia, Chester, and Wilmington, which were rapidly emerging as centers of munitions manufacturing, gun casting, and ironclad shipbuilding. The railroad system carrying troops and material south to meet the rebel forces also passed through these cities. Rumored construction of a huge Confederate Navy ironclad warship particularly disturbed the region, and Fort Delaware needed to mount heavy smoothbore guns and floating mines to stop enemy ironclads from attacking Philadelphia. The federal government began to build a great ten-gun battery on the Delaware City riverfront (Fort DuPont) to protect Pea Patch Island. Fort Delaware and to a lesser extent Fort Mifflin served as prisoner-of-war camps throughout the Civil War. Fort Delaware held more than 30,000 Confederate prisoners and local Southern sympathizers in the extremely unhealthy, disease-ridden Pea Patch Island facility.

The last decades of the nineteenth century became the golden age of American coastal fort building as the United States entered into imperial rivalries with Germany, Russia, England, France, Japan, and particularly Spain, which seemed a threat to American interests in Cuba and the Philippine Islands.  As the federal government moved to modernize and strengthen American seacoast defenses, the Philadelphia region gained additional fortification in 1896 with construction of a battery on Finn’s Point, Pennsville, Salem County, New Jersey.  Named Fort Mott after New Jersey Civil War and National Guard commander Brigadier General Gershom Mott (1882-84), the new fort created a defensive triangle with Forts Delaware and DuPont to stop any enemy fleet before it could reach the great manufacturing centers upriver at Wilmington, Chester, and Philadelphia.

World Wars Bring Heavier Artillery

Delaware Valley forts played no fighting role during the Spanish-American War, but U.S. entry into the First World War in 1917 brought the prospect of a greater need for defending the region as it continued to be a center for naval and merchant shipbuilding, munitions making, and other war goods. Moreover, the region became a mobilization nexus for troops to be shipped to the European fronts. Forts Mott and DuPont were garrisoned by artillery units. Fort DuPont built more barracks, a hospital, and warehouses to train and equip draftees and house troops and material destined to fight in the Great War. However, the region faced no real threat from enemy forces other than sabotage of defense industries by German agents in New Jersey.    

[caption id="attachment_14512" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a stone buildings with a curved window, and a large barrel gun sticking out of the window. The building is surrounded by grass, sand, and some trees in the background. The artillery used in the gun blocks at Fort Miles, poised on the Atlantic shoreline near Lewes, Delaware, were meant to pierce the armor of enemy ships from thousands of feet away. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The threat to the region was greater by the time of the Second World War, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 raised the possibility of long-distance aerial attack. Older, obsolete forts gained new purposes as sites for anti-aircraft batteries, including Fort Mifflin, manned by the first African American Coast Artillery unit. It soon became apparent, though, that the greatest threat to the region during the Second World War came from powerful German U-boats that torpedoed merchant ships and oil tankers off the Jersey and Delaware coasts and lurked just off the Delaware Bay and capes to intercept ships coming out of the Delaware Bay.  In response, the United States moved all Delaware River and bay defenses to the seacoast, erecting Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen, near Lewes, Delaware. Fort Miles featured giant, long-range sixteen-inch guns and 90mm anti-aircraft batteries. Round concrete observation and fire-control towers were constructed along the Jersey coast as far north as Sandy Hook and down the Delaware coast to Ocean City, Maryland.

Locating coastal defenses ever farther away from Philadelphia and the Delaware River during the Second World War attested to the increasing spatial dimensions of modern warfare and long-range capabilities of new weapons. It suggested as well the increasing obsolescence of the Greater Philadelphia region’s historic forts. All Delaware River forts were declared war surplus after the Second World War and remaining guns or other military material were removed. Forts Mott, DuPont, and Delaware were given to New Jersey and Delaware and became parts of historic districts and state park systems. Fort DuPont retained a National Guard armory. Fort Mifflin was eventually obtained by the city of Philadelphia and supported by a private Fort Mifflin Society to preserve one of the most historic forts in American history. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers retained a presence on site. None of the early seventeenth-century forts remained, but plaques and monuments marked the original sites of Forts Elfsborg, Billings, Mercer, Casimir, and Christina. The surviving structures and monuments and plaques served as reminders of the central role forts played in the earliest history of the Greater Philadelphia area.  

Jeffery M. DorwartProfessor Emeritus of History, Rutgers University, is  the author of histories of the Philadelphia Navy Yard; Fort Mifflin of Philadelphia; Naval Air Station Wildwood; Camden and Cape May Counties, New Jersey; Office of Naval Intelligence; Ferdinand Eberstadt and James Forrestal.  He also is the co-author of Elizabeth Haddon Estaugh: Building of the Quaker Community of Haddonfield, New Jersey, 1701-1762  (Historical Society of Haddonfield, 2013).

Shipbuilding and Shipyards

Perhaps no business, industry, or institution illuminates the history of the Greater Philadelphia region from the seventeenth century to the present day more clearly than shipbuilding and shipyards. This may seem surprising since Philadelphia and nearby Delaware riverfront ports lie one hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean up an often treacherous Delaware Bay and river filled with shifting sandbars and an ever-changing deepwater ship channel. Ice often closed the river for several winter months to ship navigation and travel. Moreover, strong tides and winds made sailing up the river to Philadelphia before the age of the steamboat very difficult. Why then did Philadelphia and surrounding southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey riverfront ports develop shipyards and become one of the greatest shipbuilding regions in the United States?

As early as the 1640s Swedish boat builders fabricated several small craft on the Delaware River in their short-lived New Sweden colony, but large-scale shipbuilding started when William Penn (1644-1718) settled his great proprietary grant of Pennsylvania between 1681-1682 with skilled Quaker artisans and maritime merchants escaping the religious persecution (sufferings) in old Britain and seeking economic opportunity in the New World. In fact, six years before he founded Philadelphia, Penn had helped shipwright James West (d. 1701) develop a small shipyard in 1676 along the Delaware Riverfront in what later became Vine Street in the city of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Penn recruited Welsh, Irish, Scot and English Quaker craftsmen who were involved in shipbuilding in Bristol, England, and more fully along the Thames River, already by 1682 a great center of ship construction and merchant houses. Indeed the Southwark section of London’s Thames riverfront soon gave rise to the Southwark shipbuilding and merchant community along the Delaware riverfront of Philadelphia. When the Philadelphia riverfront became too crowded with merchant docks and buildings for establishment of shipyards, many shipwrights moved a few miles upriver to the Kensington neighborhood that soon rivaled Southwark as a shipbuilding center on the Delaware River.

[caption id="attachment_5030" align="alignright" width="300"]William Birch's 1798 print of the frigate Iconic Philadelphia print maker William Birch captured the construction of frigate Philadelphia in November 1798 at Humphrey’s & Wharton Shipyard at the Front Street location on the Delaware River. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The first settlers of Penn’s colony turned to shipbuilding as a major industry because they found an abundant supply of trees, particularly live oak for masts, pine for hulls, and pine tar for caulking both across the river in the West New Jersey colony and in the nearby interior of Pennsylvania woodlands. Deposits for iron forging of anchors, nails and other ship parts was discovered nearby. A lucrative trade in lumber, furs, and agricultural products soon developed that demanded the construction of local ships far more cheaply, and in many cases better, than in Britain so that Pennsylvania and West New Jersey merchants across the river might carry on trade to Europe, Africa and the West Indies.

Flurry of Shipbuilding

Demand for merchant ships, particularly scows, sloops, brigs, and schooners, created a flurry of shipbuilding along the Delaware riverfront. By 1720 there were at least a dozen shipyards in Philadelphia and the surrounding waterfront producing wooden sailing ships of up to 300 tons. Around these private yards, workers’ housing, taverns, churches, and shops developed to form a vibrant riverfront community. Leading merchant houses operated docks and warehouses in the neighborhood, creating great wealth for Philadelphia. By 1750, Philadelphia with its cheaper labor, skilled ship carpenters, iron forges, and an abundance of trees had replaced Boston as the major colonial shipbuilding center.

The Colonial era was in some ways the golden age of Philadelphia shipbuilding, with master shipbuilders and carpenters including Joshua Humphreys (1751-1838), Manuel Eyre (1736-1805), the Wharton family, and Penrose brothers designing and building fast coastal sailing ships and Atlantic brigantines. The approach of troubles with Great Britain in the 1760s, though, connected in part to American colonial violations of British navigation laws and maritime regulations, threatened Philadelphia’s shipbuilding primacy. As affairs moved toward protest and then revolt, Philadelphia became the center of a Continental Congress that required naval defense. Benjamin Franklin’s Committee for the Defense of the Delaware raised money for small gunboats of the Pennsylvania Navy to defend the river and city. Meanwhile, the Continental Congress raised money for the Continental and later a U.S. Navy. These developments stimulated Philadelphia shipbuilding that included the construction of many small row gunboats, floating batteries, and even four innovative fast frigates. These frigates, designed by naval architect and Southwark shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys, became the prototype of the U.S. Navy’s first 44-gun frigates such as the Constitution.

British occupation of Philadelphia in 1778 set back Philadelphia shipbuilding. Frigates were burned, gunboats sunk, and tiny riverfront shipyards from Southwark to Kensington closed. But after British evacuation of the Continental capital, shipbuilders returned to construct warships for the revolutionary government. Independence and Philadelphia’s dominance of the China trade gave local shipbuilders, most notably the Grice shipyard, contracts to construct fast China traders and frigates for the U. S. Navy. Indeed, the old Humphreys and Wharton shipyard in Southwark served between 1793 and 1797 as the site for construction of the 1,576-ton, 44-gun frigate United States for the U.S. Navy. In 1801, the Southwark yard became the location of the first Philadelphia Navy Yard.

However, after the brief revival of shipbuilding during the Federalist era, Philadelphia maritime prominence fell on hard times. Britain closed the West Indies trade to American ships. The wars of the French Revolution created problems for American neutral trade. Jefferson and the Republicans advocated a coastal defense and a gunboat navy and refused to fund the deepwater navy of larger warships, while in 1807 instituting an Embargo against all but coastal American shipping. Meanwhile, New York and Baltimore began to take prominence both in trade and in shipbuilding. The War of 1812 momentarily revived Philadelphia’s shipbuilding with fourteen private Delaware River shipyards securing contracts for Jeffersonian gunboats and privateers, while the Humphreys and Penrose shipyard, adjacent to the Southwark Navy Yard, constructed gunboats and laid the keel for the 74-gun ship Franklin.

Shipyard Setbacks

Philadelphia had lost its leadership in overseas trade by the time of the War of 1812, and Delaware River shipyards suffered setbacks. Many small privately owned yards simply ceased to construct boats or ships. Nevertheless, a number of early 19th century industrial and economic developments revived Delaware River shipbuilding in the years before the Civil War. An abundant supply of Pennsylvania coal promoted steam powered technology most notably development of the railroad across the river in New Jersey (the Camden and Amboy Railroad) and in Pennsylvania. Moreover, machine shops, iron forges, textile, and other industries blossomed in the region, and much of it contributed to the reorganization of shipyards into larger industrial plants, subcontracting with machine shops, iron and later steel producers. This meant that the small craft shipyards of colonial times would eventually be replaced by larger industrial firms.

The first to recover and adopt a larger corporate organization was the Philadelphia Navy Yard along the Southwark riverfront. With government contracts, the yard was able to build machine shops on site. It meant that the navy yard could experiment with the innovative screw propeller technology of John Ericsson (1803-89), building the trailblazing first propeller driven warship, Princeton. The screw propeller one day replaced all paddle side-wheeled warships that were so vulnerable to cannon fire. At the same time, the yard built two huge covered ship houses that allowed wooden warships to be under construction continually with a year-around skilled workforce protected from the weather. This led to the construction of the largest wooden warship ever built for the U.S. Navy, the 120-gun Pennsylvania, launched in 1837.

[caption id="attachment_5029" align="alignright" width="300"]1863 printed advertisement for Merrick and Sons Iron Founders Merrick and Sons Iron Founders, located at Fifth and Washington Streets, constructed almost all of the machinery for the U.S. Navy Steamers during the war as well as the new Ironsides. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Meantime, a private shipbuilding yard was organized by the Cramp family on the Kensington waterfront that would become one of the most important shipyards in Philadelphia and American history. In the years before the Civil War, the William Cramp (1807-79) & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company began assembling wooden sloops, tugs, schooners and passenger ships, many powered by steam. As the Cramp’s yard expanded, it became a modern industrial plant, incorporating all the latest technology in propulsion, steam engines and hull design, and iron siding. It worked with the Philadelphia engineering firms of Merrick and Towne, Reaney & Neafie (and Levy) and Richard Loper (1800-81), the latter a pioneer of contract shipbuilding and an inventor of innovative curved screw propellers for ships. In 1849 Cramps launched Caroline, the fastest propeller driven vessel in the world. This also prepared the firm to build the first great battleship during the Civil War, New Ironsides, and several innovative iron turret ships (monitors) for the U.S. Navy in its battle against Confederate ironclads. The Philadelphia Navy Yard was not far behind, building monitors and experimenting during the Civil War with steel plating and steam engines. Soon, the government yard (that also housed the U.S. Marine Corps) became overcrowded in the Southwark neighborhood. Shortly after the war the U.S. Navy began to relocate its plant and lay up iron monitors in a wet basin at League Island just down river. After Philadelphia presented the site as a gift in 1869 to the federal government, the U.S. Navy moved the navy yard entirely by the mid-1870s to this island located at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

More Decline After Civil War

Post-Civil War Philadelphia suffered a shipbuilding depression. Skilled shipyard workers were laid off, machine shops closed, the Navy Yard was in transition, with no shipbuilding dry dock yet dredged, and the fading of an entire wooden shipbuilding craft. But the Cramp shipyard kept Philadelphia’s shipbuilding industry alive, constructing iron tugs to tow Pennsylvania coal barges, fast propeller-powered steamships, and other commercial vessels. The Kensington yard was, thus, in a perfect position to join the large contracts that the government issued to construct the New Navy to compete in the late 19th-century world of imperialism.

The first shipyard on the Delaware River to benefit from the U.S. drive to compete with European navies to secure overseas empire was actually John Roach’s (1815-87) Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Machine Works downriver in Chester, Pennsylvania, supported by the machine shops and industries of Wilmington, Delaware. The yard laid the keels for the “ABCD” warships of the New Navy (Atlanta, Baltimore, Charleston, and Dolphin). The Roach shipbuilding company ran into financial problems, however, and Cramp, with intimate political connections, took over contracts for future iron and steel shipbuilding. Cramp became during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the most significant shipyard in the United States, constructing modern battleships, cruisers, and torpedo boat destroyers for the U.S. Navy and warships for Latin American and Russian contractors. Its corporate organization, subcontracting to dynamic Philadelphia industrial firms and receiving U.S. government support propelled the yard to the center of American naval development. Several U.S. presidents attended ship launchings, attesting to the Philadelphia yard’s political and naval importance. At the same time the Philadelphia firm built innovative modern Atlantic commercial steamships, passenger, and cargo vessels.

By the First World War (1914-18) Cramp was the most important shipbuilding place along the Delaware. But there were major competitors. In 1899, New York shipbuilder and Wilmington, Delaware ship engineer Henry G. Morse (1850-1903) located his New York Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipyard in Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from the old Southwark navy yard. Soon, his innovative template construction and shipbuilding methods began to overshadow the assembly system at the Cramp’s industrial plant. At the same time, the Philadelphia Navy Yard, now on League Island, built modern dry docks, machine shops, and other support facilities, making it competitive with private shipyards. With three great shipyards in the Philadelphia area during World War I it was inevitable that the region would become a major contributor to the naval war effort. Moreover, the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Corporation (founded in 1916) of Marcus Hook, below Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey (later Pusey and Jones) Shipyard of Gloucester City, New Jersey, just below Camden, and the federal shipyard of Pennsylvania on Hog Island, below the city, constructed tankers, cargo ships, and troop transports. Entire shipyard worker communities including Yorkship and Morgan villages in Camden City and Noreg Village (later Brooklawn), Camden County, New Jersey, were founded around the shipbuilding industry. These villages provided homes for laboring families of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European, mostly Polish, descent.

Strike Disruptions

But if war stimulated shipbuilding, the postwar era and accompanying economic depression devastated the industry in Philadelphia. Cramp closed in 1927 in bankruptcy. Owing taxes to the city of Philadelphia, the yard decayed and the plant rotted away. Labor unrest and strikes by shipyard workers unionized under the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America disrupted shipbuilding. Yet, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration kept shipbuilding alive in Philadelphia. The Navy Yard received government contracts for treaty cruisers allowed under the post World War I naval disarmament agreements, and also to modernize old battleships mothballed in the wet basin on League Island. Philadelphia’s commercial port actually prospered during the economic setbacks of the 1930s, with 300 wharves doing business. And, having supported Roosevelt’s presidency, Philadelphia and Camden received funding for naval ship construction both at the New York Shipbuilding company of Camden and the Philadelphia Navy Yard on League Island. As international crises led to a second world war, Philadelphia received more huge contracts to build modern warships, and in 1939, for construction of the first of many Federal Defense Housing projects for shipyard worker housing, including that for African-Americans and women. During the war, shipyard workers also sought housing in rural suburban communities surrounding the overcrowded urban shipbuilding centers of Philadelphia, and Chester, Pennsylvania; Camden, and Gloucester City in New Jersey and the Wilmington, Delaware region.

World War II was arguably the most important period for Philadelphia and Delaware valley shipbuilding as part of its place as the Arsenal of Democracy. The Philadelphia Navy Yard employed over 50,000 workers, including several thousand “Rosie the Riveters.” Indeed, women comprised 16 percent of the shipyard’s workforce. The yard built two great battleships New Jersey and Wisconsin, and over fifty warships including innovative torpedo (PT boats) and fast aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, New York Ship hired 40,000 workers who constructed battleships, aircraft carriers, and destroyers. Nearby Camden Forge and RCA Victor of Camden, New Jersey received large contracts to provide forgings and electronics for warships constructed in the greater Philadelphia region. Sun Shipbuilding of Chester expanded to twenty dry-docks and employed nearly 40,000 workers at its four yards. One of Sun Ship’s yards employed mostly African-Americans

Cramp Shipbuilding Company revived momentarily, as well, with 18,000 employees that produced more than forty naval vessels, mostly light cruisers, ocean tugs, and submarines. However, Cramp closed permanently after the war. New York Ship and the Philadelphia Navy Yard stayed alive for years with government contracts. New York Ship built several modern postwar warships, including the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. It launched the first (and only) nuclear-powered merchant ship Savannah and signed government contracts to construct nuclear submarines. New York Ship became the area’s largest postwar employer. However, mismanagement, labor unrest, construction accidents on the carrier, and growing restrictions on building nuclear warships so near a great city led to the closing of the Camden shipyard in 1967, contributing to growing economic and social problems in the city. The South Jersey Port Corporation assumed control of the old shipyard in 1971 and operated it as the Broadway Terminal, handling millions of tons annually of lumber, fresh fruits, scrap metal. Meantime, Sun Ship was sold to the Pennsylvania Shipbuilding Corporation (Penn Ship) and operated until closure in 1989. The former Penn Ship site soon hosted a cargo terminal, casino, racetrack, and a penitentiary.

[caption id="attachment_5028" align="alignright" width="240"]In 1868 the City of Philadelphia sold the 923-acre League Island, located in South Philadelphia at the bottom of Broad Street, to the United States government for the bargain price of one dollar. Sold to the United States government in 1868, League Island operated as a Naval Shipyard until 1996. At its peak in World War II nearly a decade after this aerial photo was taken, the Shipyard employed more than 50,000 workers. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

 

Military Shipbuilding

The Philadelphia Navy Yard continued to build ships for the U.S. Navy including U.S. Marine Corps assault ships, and received Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) contracts to modernize conventionally powered (non-nuclear) aircraft carriers. But the yard could not support a nuclear navy since during World War II an accident in the uranium enriching plant on base had forecast the potential for a nuclear accident in the Delaware Valley. Without the ability to either build or modernize a nuclear navy, Philadelphia’s navy yard gradually became an outdated relic and closed for shipbuilding in 1996-97. The city of Philadelphia assumed ownership of the old navy yard in 2000, and in order to provide employment for the thousands of laid off shipyard workers in the region contracted with the Kvaerner shipbuilding corporation of Oslo, Norway to use the large dry docks of the 450-acre closed Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to construct modern tankers and container ships for Exxon and other companies. At the same time, the U.S. Navy leased the old wet basin and part of the former navy yard’s historic center for its Naval Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic and its Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility to lay up warships, including obsolete battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers for scrapping or removal as historic sites.

Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia started to develop a plan to transform the 1,000-acre industrial plant on League Island into a multi-purpose post-industrial business, shopping, and tourism park. And, when Kvaerner encountered financial troubles that forced the Norwegian shipbuilder to merge with the Aker shipbuilding firm of Oslo, Norway, the Philadelphia and U.S. governments became partners with the private Norwegian firm to ensure the continuation of shipbuilding along the Delaware River. Soon, Aker began the construction of Aframax tanker hulls for SeaRiver Maritime, Inc. in the two great dry docks at the former navy yard. This public-private partnership to promote the construction of ships on the Delaware River revealed once again how important shipbuilding was and continues to be for the history of the greater Philadelphia region.

Jeffery M. Dorwart is  the author of histories of the Philadelphia Navy Yard; Fort Mifflin of Philadelphia; Naval Air Station Wildwood; Camden and Cape May Counties, New Jersey; Office of Naval Intelligence; Ferdinand Eberstadt and James Forrestal.  Dorwart is Professor Emeritus of History, Rutgers University.

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